US Groups Sue Shell Over Refinery Pollution

WASHINGTON - U.S. environmentalists took Shell Oil Co. and several of its affiliates to court Monday in a bid to stop pollution from a refining and chemicals plant in the southwestern state of Texas. The Sierra Club and Environment Texas want a federal judge to order Shell to cease alleged violations of the Clean Air Act at its 1,500-acre Deer Park complex, located 20 miles east of downtown Houston. The sprawling metropolis is home to Shell and much of the U.S. oil industry.

The U.S. unit of Royal Dutch Shell Group faces possible civil penalties of up to 32,500 dollars per day for each of about 1,000 violations that the groups allege took place between 2003 and 2007.

The case seems destined to draw attention because it involves the sixth-largest U.S. oil refinery and one of the world's largest petrochemical producers. The legal challenge pits Shell, an international household name, against the Sierra Club, the oldest and arguably the most prominent U.S. environmental brand.

Additionally, it is the first to target violations stemming from malfunctions. Previously, pollution lawsuits have accused businesses of breaching clean air or water standards in the course of normal operations.

The lawsuit alleges breakdowns of equipment and other non-routine incidents known as "upset events" caused the release of millions of pounds of pollutants into the air at Deer Park.

Toxic chemicals thus spewed have included benzene and 1,3-butadiene -- both carcinogens.

Shell, which could not be reached for immediate comment, already has paid fines for some of the incidents detailed in the complaint. The environmental groups said the sums proved insufficient to prevent pollution.

"On average of more than once a week for at least the past five years, Shell has reported that it violated its own permit limits by spewing a wide range of harmful pollutants into the air around the Deer Park plant," said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas.

"Because the state of Texas and the U.S. EPA have both failed to put a stop to these blatant violations, ordinary citizens are stepping up to enforce the law themselves," he added, referring to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The federal Clean Air Act permits citizens to file lawsuits as a way to ensure that the legislation is enforced if state and federal regulators fail at the task.

One local resident said prevailing winds spread pollution from the Deer Park plant to surrounding neighborhoods.

"My family and my employees simply can't afford to breathe in any more air pollution," said Karla Lands, a Sierra Club member and business owner in the Houston suburb of Channelview, north of Deer Park.

A single "upset event" can result in the release of thousands of pounds of air pollutants in a matter of minutes or hours, environmentalists said.

The Sierra Club and Environment Texas said they analyzed reports submitted by Shell to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and found that air pollutants released during upset events at Deer Park since 2003 included more than two million pounds of sulfur dioxide; more than one million pounds of volatile organic compounds; in excess of 600,000 pounds of carbon monoxide; 250,000-plus pounds of nitrogen oxides; more than 90,000 pounds of benzene, and 60,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene.

Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone. This, according to the EPA, can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. Air quality in Harris County regularly violates standards for ground-level ozone set by EPA, environmentalists said.

Sulfur dioxide has been tied to respiratory illness, particularly in children and the elderly, and aggravates existing heart and lung diseases. Sulfur dioxide also contributes to the formation of acid rain. It is a byproduct of the refining process, formed from the combustion of fuel containing sulfur compounds.

The Deer Park complex consists of a refinery, petrochemical plant, and docks.

According to Shell, both the refinery and chemical plant received certification under the ISO 14001 international standard for environmental management systems.

The refinery, which Shell operates, is a 50-50 joint venture with PMI Norteamerica, a subsidiary of Pemex, Mexico's state-owned oil company. It churns out gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and kerosene. These are piped to U.S. markets or shipped to Mexico and, occasionally, Europe.

The chemical plant produces ingredients found in aspirin, carpeting, electrical insulation, explosives, dyes, paint, pesticides, polyester clothing, detergents, water sealants, cosmetics, and charcoal lighter fluid.

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